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Ariadne, by John William Waterhouse (detail) [1898] (Public Domain Image)

Black Marigolds

by E. Powys Mathers


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This is a versified translation of the Caurapañcāśikā. This love poem of fifty stanzas was written by the Kasmiri poet Bilhana Kavi in the 11th century. The story runs that the Brahman Bilhana had a clandestine love affair with Princess Yaminipurnatilaka, the daughter of King Madanabhirama. He was discovered and Bilhana wrote this poem in prison before he learned whether he would be executed or banished. The historic outcome is unknown, which adds to the readers' suspense.

Initially this poem was transmitted orally, and by the time it was written down, there several variations: the South Indian versions tend to have a happy ending, and the Northern, Kashmiri, recension has an open ending.

The Caurapañcāśikā was 'discovered' by Europeans in the nineteenth century. The first French edition, published in The Journal Asiatique of 1848, was based on one of the South Indian versions with a happy ending. There were several 19th century translations in various languages; it was suitable material for Romantic poets, including Sir Edwin Arnold, who produced his own (very loose) translation. In 1919, the English poet Powys Mathers produced this free-verse translation, titled Black Marigolds. This was the translation which John Steinbeck quotes in Cannery Row. A modern version worth looking for is The Secret Delights of Love, by Gertrude Clorius Schwebell, Peter Pauper Press, New York [1966]; this can be found used very inexpensively.

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Black Marigolds